Musical Notes

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I Confess

In this issue of The Post, I am going to confess to what some readers may view as a heinous crime: I do not like listening to solo piano; furthermore I do not like listening to a solo violin either. There, it's done, I've come out.

OK, some explanation is probably in order. When I go to a concert or sit at home listening to an LP or CD recording, it will almost certainly be an orchestral work that I am listening to. It has always been this way; in my youth I told myself that I did not care for piano or violin recitals because I had not yet reached the plane of intellectual understanding that would enable me to appreciate such things – I simply didn't 'get it'; I would in the future, but not yet. Well a lot of future has passed and I am very little further forward than I was all those years ago – I still don't 'get it'.

Let me say straight away that I have nothing against the piano or the violin per se – I am not subscribing here the somewhat jaundiced view that the sound of a violin is generated by the friction of a horse's tail on the entrails of a cat. Both instruments are capable, in the right hands, of producing exquisite sounds, and after all, a symphony orchestra has a fair number of violins in it. And frankly, that is how I like my violins: en masse. Pianos en masse? Erm, perhaps not, the Labèque sisters, Katia and Marielle are about my limit.

To be sure, one can marvel at the liquid poetry emanating from the bow of Jascha Heifitz or the unbelievably liquid fingers of Shura Cherkassky or the prodigious memory of Evgeny Kissin. I wonder however if that statement doesn't in itself point to the very root of my problem. What is it that I am actually listening to when I am seated in front of a real or perceived orchestra? I am certainly hearing and following the melodies, countermelodies and harmonies written down by the composer in his or her score, being aware of the interplay between instrumental sections within the orchestra – woodwind and brass for instance. I am also, with appropriate pieces, producing, or at least trying to produce, a mental image of what the composer is saying to me.

On the other hand, if I am sat in the audience facing a stage occupied solely by a Steinway and a stool, the stool being occupied by a pianist, I, and I suspect a greater or lesser proportion of my fellow audience members, are there to listen to the pianist perform, not solely to listen to the music. We marvel at the feat of memory, the dexterity, the artistic expression, the power, the dynamic control, the sheer musicality of it all. The same of course applies to our violinist, or indeed to any instrumental soloist; no argument about these factors, but they all refer to the performer, not the music.

To support my argument further, I would contend that my choice of which concerts to go to is driven principally by the work(s) being performed, rather than by who is performing. Clearly that is not the case 100 per cent of the time, as on some occasions I will be attracted by the opportunity to see and hear a particular orchestra or conductor, when those opportunities rarely present themselves, and indeed most of the factors I listed above for the pianist can apply equally well to the conductor or to a highlighted section principal of the orchestra. My contention appears to be borne out in practice; according to Stephen Maddock, chief executive of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, About 80 per cent go for the programme, about 10 per cent for the artists, and 10 per cent for other reasons.

Well, you might ask, what about a concerto for violin or piano? Again, I'm perfectly happy with this. Only last night I played my recording of the 16 year-old Yehudi Menuhin playing the Elgar violin concerto, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer, recorded in 1932. Incidentally, that recording has been continuously available in the record catalogues since its release right up to the present day, encompassing all the recording formats: 78s, LPs, tape cassettes, CDs, and although I haven't looked, I dare say you could probably find an mp3 version of it as well. The Elgar concerto being something of an exception, it's when we come to the cadenza that I am least comfortable. This moment in a concerto, usually part way into either the first, or more often the third and final movement, is when the soloist is given the opportunity to display his or her skills on their instrument, unaccompanied. The cadenza rarely serves any thematic purpose in the work other than being a showcase for the performer; it often comprises fast passage work – long rapid sequences of short notes and chords – runs up and down the keyboard or fingerboard, double-stopping1 (in the case of the violin); all artefacts designed to demonstrate the virtuosity of the player. Very often, the composer of the concerto did not even write the cadenza, a gap was simply left for the performer to fill in2: 'Cadenza here please'.

To what extent could all this be affected by whether or not the listener is also a player of the same instrument? I suspect it does greatly. I am neither a violinist nor a pianist, although I do possess and play an electronic keyboard. However in my mid-20s to mid-30s, I played the classical guitar in local festivals and competitions. During the same period, I attended a lot of guitar recitals, and I know I was concentrating a great deal to the technique as well as listening to the music. A performance of the Bach Chaconne played by Andrés Segovia I was fortunate enough to be present at, was a life-changing experience.

So next time someone tells you about a recital concert they've been to, see whether they went to hear Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, performed by Rudi Hoppelpop3, or went to hear the same Herr Hoppelpop play the Diabelli Variations by Beethoven. I think I know which.

Musical Notes Archive


04.12.08 Front Page

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1A violin is designed to play principally one note at a time. Playing two notes at a time (called double-stopping) is technically more difficult, and involves bowing two adjacent strings simultaneously, while holding down (hence the term stopping) those two strings with the fingers of the other hand, to produce two different notes.2In fairness to the composer, at one time the soloist was expected to extemporise on thematic material from earlier in the concerto.3I trust Herr Hoppelpop is only a figment of my imagination.

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